On losing a car and a girlfriend

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS my ex-girlfriend on the phone. I had split up with her a few weeks before; she had moved to a different city, in the West Country, and everything had gone wrong. It was impossible to go on; the best thing, I decided, was to have nothing more to do with her. That would be the least painful way.

'Guess what - I've passed my driving test]'

'Wow . . . I, well done, uh, so . . .'

I was stumbling around a bit, trying to combat the rush of hope that this phone call would lead to a reconciliation. I was trying to sense how damaged was my certainty that this would be wrong, absolutely wrong, real trouble. I was thinking: at all costs, I must not

see her.

'Do you want to come up? I can drive you somewhere?'

'Absolutely.'

She picked me up at the station in her ageing hatchback, and zipped me through the streets with an unfamiliar aggression. I wondered if I should tell her that I thought she was driving too fast, or if, instead, I should give her insincere compliments on her technique. Would that sound patronising? We were in a weird zone, not having argued for weeks, both desperate not to argue, and both, I suspected, secretly craving confrontation. I studied her hair, her jacket, her jewellery. The Escorts and Sierras on the dual carriageway jerked backwards past my left eye.

We were going to drive to Torquay, a town famous as a place to have tea in, and have tea. And then what? We would see. I couldn't imagine the two of us spending time together and not shouting at each other for most of it; my suspicion was that we both felt we had split up too early, and needed to air more of our spite for each other. Or was I just being cynical? I looked at BMWs, at Audis, at young men in MGs with the roof down, in the lane to my left. Maybe, I thought again, I should comment on the driving. Did she subconsciously want me to comment on the driving?

We picked up the signposts to Torquay

and swooped on to another fast road. We would be getting there in a few minutes.

'Can't you . . .'

'What?'

'Nothing.'

'No - what were you going to say?'

I was going to say I thought she was driving too fast.

'Can't you take the, the exit coming up?' That was close. I looked at her as she pursed her mouth. I felt absolutely sure that we were entering the nightmare.

We reached Torquay 20 minutes later, sweating, weary, a hair-trigger away from shouting. She parked the car; we walked down a grass bank, then along a street, aware that a single wrong word would start up the hideous, sickening thing we desired and feared. For five minutes, neither of us said anything at all.

It was a town of relentless prettiness, with clean and spacious streets, full of old people in cheap, well-kept clothes. We were in a part of it with large houses set back from the street and tall deciduous trees.

'Uh . . . thanks for driving me.'

'That's . . . all right.'

We walked across a large expanse of grass, and went into one of the tea-rooms. Inside, it was stuffy, nausea-inducing, full of doilies and precise-looking little cakes and more old people in cut-price jackets and shoes. We ordered a pot of tea for two and some cakes; we sat down, looked around. We talked blandly about our immediate surroundings. Already sickish, I ate a few cakes, breathed more stuffy air, went to the gents and splashed cold water on my face. I had a fantasy about climbing out of the window and running away. But I didn't want to.

Then it was time to go back. We walked for a few minutes.

I said: 'Where's the car?'

'What do you mean . . . where is the car?'

'Well - where did you . . . park it?'

'I parked it . . . I, uh, can't remember.'

I realised what had happened - unused to driving, she had overlooked a crucial aspect of the driver's task. We were stranded, in the middle of a large, unfamiliar town, with a car parked . . . somewhere. But where? It could have been in any direction, located at any distance. And now we could argue. Now we could hash things out. I thought: oh no] And I thought: oh yes]

'Do you not have any idea?'

'Do I not have any idea? I mean, didn't you think, didn't you have any foresight?'

'Me not having foresight? Me?'

The floodgates opened. This was what we had been waiting for. This was the point of the outing. We walked through the town, looking for the car, shouting abuse at each other, which reached a crescendo, then built up again with subtle needling. Whose fault was it? Both of us. We were trapped as neatly as if we had been locked in a cupboard together. Had we both, on a subconscious level, organised for this to happen?

With less to lose, I became the optimistic one. The car, I was always sure, lay just around the corner; she became more nettled each time I was wrong. Dusk started to fall. The panic increased.

'Look - I recognise this street . . .'

'Oh, not again] You're just saying that]'

'OK then. Shall we just give up then?'

'Well, you should have remembered in the first place]'

'Me?'

'Oh, now you've said it. Now you're implying it's my fault.'

'No, I'm not.'

'That was your implication. That was your clear implication.'

'Stop being so pompous.'

'You calling me pompous?'

I found the car. We drove back in silence, and spent the night together. Then I got

up, and went home on the train, feeling

much better. Now we could both begin our separate lives.-

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